Noto was like many Sicilian towns in that it occupied the side and crest of a hill. Steep steps lead between the cobbles from one tier to another and tiny lanes wove in a labyrinth of ascending spirals and semi-circles.
I congratulated myself on finding a gentle winding gradient through alleys of ever decreasing width until my way was barred by a small boy. He was wielding a long baton and had a lot to say. Perhaps he required a password. His response was to raise the stick and bash me about the helmet and shoulders. It was steep and being heavily laden, I could not move fast enough. From here on everything happened in a blur. Sped up slow motion, where nothing moves and yet everything spins. He saw his advantage, trotted around to the front and jammed his stick into my front wheel. Even with my slow progress the force of my uphill flight spun the stick out, reminding of childhood spin-drier warnings. It smacked him hard on the wrist and I bawled a long string of the most abusive quasi-Italian musical expletives I could muster.. if I had been hurtling down hill at speed I would have broken my neck. To complete the assault, a two year old thug sitting at shoulder height on steps that led up between the houses lobbed broken bricks down at me.
Susan later told me that if I had knocked on a door to advise the parents of their offspring’s lack of manners, I would more than likely have received a black eye. A kinked mudguard stay and a spoke out of true was the only damage sustained. In fact, it was the only mishap to befall either Sir. Galahad or myself during the whole 12 months I was away and the only time I got to wield my spoke wrench. An engineering triumph, as the mysteries of bringing a wheel back to true required ‘the knowledge’….after which, of course, my nipples squeaked. (cycling terminology) A mild annoyance that reminded me of a very lucky escape.
It was time for a change of scenery. My friend Ruth was coming to join me for a few days and to replenish supplies of toothpaste, medication and, vitally, Devon Farm Chilli chocolate. I have had a long love affair with my toothpaste and, as a little euthymol goes a long way, this was only the third tube in 7 months. I especially enjoy the metal tube and woe betide anybody who squeezes it from the middle or causes unsightly dents. I may have imitated my father on this; ditto, his fastidiousness over sticky hands and oranges, with which he was utterly incapable.
I was to meet Ruth at Palermo, in the diagonal opposite corner of Sicily to Noto. However, two days before my departure, Franco announced that these plans would coincide with an all too familiar ‘Sciopero’.
A transport strike in Italy is such a common occurrence that there is a website dedicated to give those who want to travel on public transport advance information. There was to be a major strike involving buses, taxis, and fuel. It would cover precisely the period when Ruth and I had planned to tour around the west of Sicily in a hired car.
It looked a little uncertain to travel by bus, so I opted for the train. This journey along two sides of a triangle . … the east and then the north coast….. took 7 hours compared to the inland, diagonal 3 hour bus route, but was worth it to see the slow passage of landscape in all its contrasting rugged beauty and industrial concrete.
One of Susan’s language students had recommended a B & B in the centre of Palermo …. Piccolo Sicilia and Raffaela who came out to meet me with smiling baby Cesare.
On the pavement beside the door to her apartment, I bought 6 oranges from the stall holder and consumed half of them as soon as I got to my room. I could happily have kept him in business.
In the queue for the airport bus the next morning, there was a commotion. A man was contorting himself at great speed and high volume while clutching a mobile phone. With windmill arms, alternately bent double and then arching in a backwards spasm he roared and whined like a grotesque Katherine wheel. Each forward convulsion was punctuated with an emphatic knee-wards fling of his forearm, at the end of which, his thumb and finger tips, white with compression, were skewed tightly into an upturned claw. Every now and then he would hold his mobile at arm’s length as if to better abuse it and then he would throw his head back and clutch it two-handed as pop-star massages his microphone.. This performance lasted fully 20 minutes while an unmoved audience waited for the bus to arrive. He continued without pause until we were half way to the airport.
With a final finger-jab to the phone he turned to his female neighbour and bawled a blow by blow account of his “virilita insultato”. Poor girl. She shrank into the window curtains. Each time she turned to look out he joggled her elbow.
I was feeling so nauseated from the hubub and with having to sit too far back that I started to exercise witchcraft. For my sake and hers, I silently summoned him to vacate his front seat. It has never worked. This time though, it did. He started to pace up and down the bus in an attempt to widen his field of support upon which I darted forwards and settled into the space. When I pointed at my paper bag and mimed being sick, he studiously kept his distance. The girl and I exchanged an eyebrow.
At last in the airport I managed to recover and then through the sliding
doors staggered Ruth and ruck sack. Another adventure in bud.